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WiFi internet service for Wilbraham residents a possible future town project

Aug. 27, 2014 | Chris Goudreau

WILBRAHAM – Town officials are looking into the possibility of offering a fiber-optic service for municipal departments in order to increase the efficiency of wireless Internet access and communications. The next step after that, however, could be to offer that service to residents.

“So, we’re technically labeled as a duopoly and what that means is there’s two main providers, Verizon, which offers a DSL service and it’s horrendous, or Comcast, which offers a more reliable service when it works,” William Caruana, chairman of the Broadband Advisory Committee said. 

In May 2013 and 2014 town residents voted at each respective Annual Town Meeting to approve the creation of a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), which needed two votes to be approved, he said.

According to the town website, the MLP legislation is in Chapter 164 of Massachusetts General Law and was created to enable municipalities to create electric departments for their communities.

The MLP gives the municipality the legal right to begin agreements with pole owners in order to apply for licenses as a commercial third party entity. It also helps a municipality build and own its own broadband network.

At the Aug. 18 Special Town Meeting, residents by a majority vote approved the creation of a Municipal Light Plant Enterprise Fund, which is a self-sustaining fund and allows the town to receive and utilize receipts for any potential sale of broadband.

“Instead of having income go to the general fund, it goes into a specific line item that says ‘this has to be reinvested’ so we can start expanding out the Internet services,” Caruana added.

The articles of incorporation still need to be constructed for the MLP, he said. However, Caruana thinks that within the next year the first phase of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) fiber project could be finished.

This unofficial first stage of the project, which needs to be approved by the Board of Selectmen, could link municipal departments with fiber optics to improve communication between schools, the police and fire departments, and various town departments, he said.

“When we send out the RFP [request for proposals] and when we have it down in writing exactly what we’re requesting, then it will become an official plan,” he explained.

If the MBI fiber project becomes available for residential use, it would be an alternative to Charter that could be lower in cost, said Board of Selectmen Chair Robert Russell. 

There is a proposed transition of Hampden and Wilbraham accounts from Charter Communications to Comcast, which was discussed at the Board of Selectmen’s July 28 meeting.

Overall, this local transition is part of a pending transaction that could see Comcast acquiring Time Warner Cable Inc.

One aspect of that transaction includes Comcast and Charter exchanging 1.5 million Time Warner customers for 1.6 million Charter subscribers.

“This is a way for the town to potentially generate revenue without taxes,” he added.

Currently, the project is still in its infancy stage and has just barely scratched the surface, Russell said.

The broad stroke plan is to create enough of the fiber optic infrastructure for the enterprise fund to sustain itself in the long term, he added.

An unspecified amount of seed money has been appropriated for the construction of fiber optics for municipal use only, he said.

“I personally feel [that] we desperately need to start looking at other ways to get revenue outside of continually raising taxes,” Caruana said. “And for me, this is an easy course, an easy way to see this moving forward.”

Caruana said Russell frequently comes to Broadband Advisory Committee meetings and engages in discussions with committee members.  

“I love the fact that he’s willing to come into my meetings and show a Select Board’s point of view, which is something I haven’t gotten before,” he said.
    For questions or more information, Caruana can be contacted at 367-8683.

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